In the early 2000s, I attended a benefit reading for Sixteen Rivers Press held at a private home in Sausalito, California. The two readers that evening were Philip Levine, who would later become poet laureate of the United States, and Gerald Fleming. Fleming’s first collection, Swimmer Climbing Onto Shore, was forthcoming from Sixteen Rivers. This book is one of five Fleming collections on my shelf, and the only collection of his verse poems. The four books that followed — Night of Pure Breathing (Hanging Loose Press, 2011); The Choreographer (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2013); One (Hanging Loose Press, 2016); and The Bastard and the Bishop (Hanging Loose Press, 2021) are all prose poems, but each collection is distinctly and refreshingly different from one to the next.
I recently asked Fleming why he made the shift from writing verse to the prose poem. He said he felt that something had broken loose after writing his poem “Two Women” while in graduate school at San Francisco State, and that he had “a free sense that it might be possible to integrate some of the essential elements of the poetics “important to him within prose. Astonished by the international anthology The Prose Poem (Michael Benedikt, editor), he turned more seriously to the form. Finally, after a walk in Paris one day, a poem he wrote nailed it: “…the writing of that one thrilled me in a way I hadn’t experienced before, and since then the form has seemed natural to me, supple, non-judgmental, invitational in the way that no subject matter is inappropriate.”
One is a collection of prose poems that plays with the idea of writing poems with one syllable per word. What? You heard me right. A poet set out to do this crazy thing — and it works as, perhaps, only Fleming can make it work because, in part, the poems aren’t gimmicks; they’re strongest muscles are deep observation, wit, humor, humility and, in short, emotion or, rather, emotions as they take us on a roller coaster of feelings. Take for instance his eye-opener, “All Your Life You Fight It and Here it is Once More.” The title may tempt you to think of all kinds of things you might “fight” in life, but read on:
ALL YOUR LIFE YOU FIGHT IT AND HERE IT IS ONCE MORE
Tough block, New York’s West Side, we’ve just checked in. I look out from our third-floor room & see there’s a store down there, black guy next to the door, cup in his hands — he rocks back & forth, left foot, right, & now a white gal comes out with a bag, he thrusts his cup in front of her, she shakes her head no, walks toward the street, but he won’t give up: holds out the cup, still she says no, the light goes green & he stays with her as she steps into the crosswalk: thrusts the cup out, she sweeps her hand at him, No, & now they’ve crossed the street, the cup pushed at her, & now she takes it, sips from it, keeps it, he takes her bag & they walk south.
There you have it, the self-identified racism every white person slams up against that makes him or her realize there’s always more work to be done. The reader of this poem might have uttered, “Damn,” by the end of reading this poem, “what was I thinking?”
Fleming provides a generous note at the end of his latest collection, The Bastard and the Bishop to give credit where it’s due. While he was working on editing the massive Collected Poetry and Prose of Lawrence Fixel, a brilliant labor-of-love undertaking published by Sixteen Rivers Press in 2020, he became acquainted with a London friend of Fixel’s, David Miller. Miller sent Fleming a volume of his own prose poems, Spiritual Letters. Fleming states that while the book “is neither spiritual in the strictly religious sense nor letters in the epistolary sense,” they also were not the kind of poems he was typically drawn to as they “run a narrative line for a while, then abruptly flip to another strand of narrative, then perhaps back to the first, perhaps not.” Yet, he found that these particular poems opened him in a new way, and found that “by the time I was into the book a dozen pages, in a state of not-unhappy disorientation, certain small phrases triggered progressions of thought for me — often completely unrelated — and I followed.”
Inspired, Fleming started writing and his next project was born. He would read a page from Spiritual Letters and take a phrase or word or two that jumped out and begin a new poem, braiding into the poem Miller’s exact words. Here is a poem I find particularly lovely, a poem that, perhaps, most poets can relate to:
The poet is in the center of a city known for its beauty. He’s in a chair next to a circular fountain, the water of the fountain tinged green with algae, and in the center of the fountain a circle of eighteen jets, the jets on a timer, the water rising, falling green-white against the clear blue sky.
He’s reading poetry — a poet he loves from the High North. He reads the words but can’t bring himself to concentrate. Though the man whose words he reads is long dead, the poet thinks of him as a friend, and when he travels in the city, the man’s book in his briefcase — or, as now, in his hand — he feels that he has a friend with him.
Today, though, by the fountain, he reads the word Now May is at the window over and over, but finds himself losing interest, pulled away each time by the sound of the fountain, the height of its jets, and he sees now, knows now, that though long ago he consciously chose not to compete with other poets, every poet competes with water.
From his first collection to his most recent, Gerald Fleming has continued to show how he opens his mind to new possibilities every single time. And we are the ones rewarded. Of the late Lawrence Fixel’s work, Michael Delville has written “Very few prose poets have done more to expand the boundaries of the genre.” Gerald Fleming seems to have taken up that banner. All of his books are available through the publishers, as well as Amazon.